Addressing forefoot pain, plan B: Stiffer cycling insoles

Previously, I wrote about the lateral forefoot pain I observed when I transitioned over to stiffer-soled cycling shoes. Using the location of the pain, I tried to address it via adjusting my cleat position to yield a narrower pedal stance width. My thinking was that pushing my shoes outboard to minimize shoe rub on the crank arm also led to my feet effectively “spilling over” the outboard edge of the pedals unsupported.

After experimenting with the concept on both my Shimano XC5 and Northwave Core Plus shoes, I had some improvement on the Northwaves, but I came off thinking perhaps some more relief could be had.

The second thing I considered was insoles.

In both the XC5 and the Core Plus, the insole is essentially nothing more than a piece of either foam or cardboard. There is no firm shape to it, let alone arch support or any kind of stiffness, and yet this was the part of the shoe my feet would be in direct contact with as I pedaled. Perhaps this was the area ripe for improvements in foot support and stability?


To test this, I ordered Ergon IP3 cycling insoles, made for them by another German company called Solestar. These green Ergon co-branded items are their most affordable option, coming in at around US$49 a pair. Solestar has three other options of insoles, each going upward in stiffness.

The text-heavy documentation on the packaging basically confirms what my suspicions were all along: cycling in clipless shoes and pedals is all about giving support, stability, and controlling unnecessary movement. This is in contrast to the design philosophy of a walking or running shoe, where the foot is generally left to move as freely as it can. So that’s the theory…

The Ergon IP3 insoles have a three-layer construction. The outermost shell is the stiffest component and sets the overall shape, while the green damping padding layer and antibacterial cover are meant to cushion your foot’s sole. The idea is that these will provide the support that a shoe’s narrow outsole can’t, effectively extending it.

I understand not everyone agrees with Solestar’s approach with insole design. One notable critic is famous Australian bike fitter Steve Hogg. If it were up to him, he’d place the stiffness on the instep or medial side for arch support. For my specific purposes, though, Solestar’s shape and focus on the lateral forefoot seems to fit the bill, and the company’s insoles have their fans too.

But I digress. Back to the Ergon IP3 Solestars:

Looking at these insoles from the top down really does not do them justice. Below are comparisons of the Ergon IP3 Solestar insoles with those of the Northwave Core Plus and the Shimano XC5.


View from the rear.
L-R: Northwave Core Plus insole, Shimano XC5 insole, Ergon IP3 Solestar insole
Side profile comparison.
From top: Northwave, Shimano, Ergon Solestar.
Front view comparison.
From top: Shimano, Northwave, Ergon Solestar.

Generally speaking the Northwave insole is the flattest of the three. This reflects in how early I tend to get hot spots in them, but the shoe’s generous fit mitigates it well, and preventing it from flaring into uncontrolled pain. Shimano’s has a bit more shaping, especially around the heel cup. The Ergon Solestar unit, though, is something else.

What the pictures don’t show is the stiffness of the material. Drop either the Northwave or the Shimano insoles to the floor, and you hear a whimper. Drop the Ergon Solestars, and you hear a loud slap across the floor tiles. There’s the stiffness for you – and remember, this is supposed to be the runt of Solestar’s cycling insole lineup.

In the case of the Shimano insoles, it’s this lack of substance and material stiffness that ultimately renders the fancy shaping moot, especially on longer rides like my experience at the 7-Eleven Tour event. As Steve Hogg says, Shimano is taking baby steps, yet not quite fully committing to better insole construction.

One final comparison involves just placing them on top of my crossed-leg right foot and seeing how much of my foot’s sole each insole covers.

Foot sole coverage of the Northwave Core Plus insole.
Foot sole coverage of the Shimano XC5 insole.
Foot sole coverage of the Ergon IP3 Solestar insole.

No adhesives were involved in the three preceding photos. These were just the insoles each gingerly placed on top of my right foot in a crossed-leg pose. It’s not a sophisticated test, but it easily shows just how much support each insole provides.

As expected, both the Northwave and Shimano insoles let my black-socked foot spill over the outboard/lateral side. The Ergon Solestars simply don’t. This bodes well for my comfort, but nothing is for sure until I take them pedaling. The plan is to use these insoles on both the Shimano XC5 and the Northwave Core Plus shoes, and take them riding.


The Ergon IP3 Solestar insoles transformed the XC5s. After an hour’s worth of HIIT on the turbo trainer, I was mildly surprised that my feet had very minimal hot spots. There is enough shaping to the insole to notice the support, yet for me it was not intrusive. I just felt the shoe finally doing its job.

The Northwave Core Plus shoes also improved their fit with the Ergon insoles, but not quite to the same degree as with the Shimanos. After a 90-minute trainer session, I still felt hot spots on my foot, but it was still an improvement over just the more inboard pedaling stance brought by cleat adjustment. The same findings applied when using the combination on a 75-kilometer road ride spanning three hours.


So yes, aftermarket cycling insoles – or even expensive custom orthotics – can provide that final bit of fine-tuning for your feet to fit better into a cycling shoe. Presenter and ex-pro sprinter Chris Opie of the Global Cycling Network has his pair that he uses from shoe to shoe. In my case, they successfully serve as a width extension of an already stiff, but too narrow, cycling shoe outsole, and provide the support needed to ward off lateral forefoot pain.

That said, much also rides on how well the insoles or orthotics work with the shoes they’re placed into, and as we’ve seen, they’re not a magic bullet that will give the exact same results with different shoes. Much like with saddles, personal preference and fit will play a large factor in shoes, cleat placement, and insole choice.


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